Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
At the multiplex: the 10 best (and nearly best 5) of 2006

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 8, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

The Oscars are coming up on Sunday, Feb. 25. Thus it is the time to make the choices for the Best Movies of 2006. I will give 10 best films, starting at number one, and follow the 10 with five runners-up.

1. The best film of the year is Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. In subdued brown colors, Eastwood tells the story of the Japanese defenders of the rocky island of Iwo Jima in World War II. It is a memorable anti-war film that breaks down all the stereotypes of Hollywood World War II films. Here we see ordinary people like ourselves coping with a life-and-death situation. All the good and bad qualities of human beings are placed before us. The all-Japanese cast, led by Ken Watanabe, is outstanding. The terrific original screenplay, written by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis and based on letters written by Japanese soldiers, is memorable. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles and is extremely violent. A Vietnam veteran coming out of the theater the same time as I did said it was the most realistic war film he had ever seen.

2. Tommy Lee Jones has directed his first film, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, with a Tex-Mex starkness that goes to the moral dilemmas of what it means to be a human being. Jones, as a cowboy from Texas, forces the accidental killer of a Mexican immigrant to return to bury the innocent man’s body in his home town across the border in Mexico. The journey of the two across the borderlands of the Southwest is cathartic and redeeming. In the end, Jones’s film is all about the redemption of the one holding the gun over another as it is about the man who misused his gun to kill an innocent person in the first place.

3. The Departed is Martin Scorcese’s new film about Irish-American gangsters in contemporary Boston. It is an extremely violent film. Matt Damon is a mole from the gang in the police department. Leonardo DiCaprio is the spy for the police within the gang. Scorsese tells a byzantine story of double crosses. You are always off center and never sure what is going to happen next. It is low on redemption and high on vengeance. DiCaprio acts his heart out. Mark Wahlberg deserves the award for the best supporting male actor. He eats up all the scenery.

4. Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II during the time of the death of Princess Diana in August of 1997. She constantly illuminates Stephen Frears’s film The Queen. It is clearly the best acting job by a woman this year. Mirren helps you to see how the Queen misreads the mood of the nation as she summers at her Balmoral Castle in Scotland. But she also enables you to understand and sympathize with a woman who has given over 50 years of service as monarch of her country. The scene in which Elizabeth alone meets a beautiful stag in the Scottish Highlands, only to find out a few days later that it has been killed, and then visits the body hanging from a hook in a storage room, is unforgettable. The Queen is the perfect movie for a person who wants an old-fashioned film with little or no violence portrayed on the screen.

5. Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film from three continents is titled Babel, from the Jewish Scriptures’ story of the famous tower. The plot is held together by a sliver of plausibility involving a rifle given as a gift by a Japanese hunter. Two sections of the film stand out. The story of the Hispanic nanny (played beautifully by Oscar nominee Adriana Bareraza) taking her two Anglo charges to her son’s wedding in Mexico against the command of their parents, who are traveling in Africa, is poignant and moving. The story of a hearing-impaired teenager whose mother has died recently and who seeks meaning in her life is memorable. Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi gives the performance of her young life that is difficult to watch in its intensity and, at the same time, is unforgettable. Babel is a movie that is haunting.

6. Bill Condon’s huge musical story loosely based on the career of the all-women singing group The Supremes is titled Dreamgirls. It is made for the big screen. Contrary to the image of the previews, the film is almost non-stop music. The songs continually further the plot or tell us the emotions of the key characters as they sing. Eddie Murphy reinvents his career as R&B singer James “Thunder” Early. Jennifer Hudson as Miss Effie White has the part from which stardom is built. She is fantastic as the member of the trio who is the best singer and yet is dumped because she doesn’t fit the promoters’ image. Some older folks like myself might think the sound is too high in the theater. I advise you to take loose ear plugs, or else wait until you can get the DVD and can control the sound.

7. The new James Bond remake Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig as Bond, is lots of good old fashioned fun. It is a carnival ride that won’t stop. There is a love story that predates all the later Bond stereotypes of women.

8. Another Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron takes on mystery writer P.D. James’s unusual foray into science fiction in Children of Men. The cinematography of England in the year 2027 is starkly beautiful. The story of trying to protect the first child born in 18 years has all kinds of overtones on the issue of the dignity of all human life. The scene between warring factions, when people suddenly realize the child is in their midst, is unforgettable. It is the adoration of the shepherds and kings all over again. To get to this diamond of a scene you do walk through much violence and degradation.

9. United 93, by Paul Greengrass, is a documentary-style film in real time of the hijacking of the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. It is hard to watch, but at the same time, it is an extraordinary film. Many of the parts at the FAA and other agencies are played by the actual people who lived them on that fateful September day.

10. There are things to question about Little Miss Sunshine. Language and themes make this a film for adults, although it looks like it would be for families. The dysfunctional family road trip across the Southwest to California to a prepubescent beauty pageant is filled with non-stop humor tinged with a dark side. The ensemble cast is terrific.

Films that fall into the honorable mention category include the following five:

The Last King of Scotland is tragic story of the cruel dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin. Forest Whitaker gives the performance of a lifetime as this sad and grandiose man who killed hundreds of thousands of Africans in the 1970s.

Half Nelson is a sad film with an incredible performance by 26-year-old Ryan Gosling as a barely functioning teacher who is a crack addict. He breaks all the safety rules by giving a junior-high student a ride home. She eventually becomes the person who tries to save him from himself. The performance by Gosling is so powerful the film becomes unforgettable. Warning: A very difficult film to watch.

The Good Shepherd is Robert DeNiro’s fascinating story of the beginning of the CIA, down through the Bay of Pigs in the 1960s. Matt Damon gives a low-key performance of a man who seeks to serve his country at all costs but loses his family in the process.

Notes on a Scandal is a dark story of moral choices gone awry. Judi Dench at 72 again proves she is one of world’s greatest actresses alive today as she plays a villain you almost can’t believe. Cate Blanchett at 37 plays the teacher who commits a horrendous crime. The acting is top of the line.

• Volver is the Spanish film by Pedro Almodovar that clearly show what a wonderful actress Penelope Cruz is when she speaks in her native language. The film has some scenes making fun of older Catholic women and their beliefs in spirits. The plot wanders hither and yon. But Cruz makes it all worthwhile, and ultimately, the film is about family.

(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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